Marriage according to ancient wisdom (I got engaged)


Some of you who have been following this project for a while know that I have a long time girlfriend who is sometimes mentioned in my posts. Well, I’m pleased to say that going forward I will refer to her as my “fiancee.” I proposed to her in August (yes, this post is very late) and fortunately for me, she said yes! We have been together since college so I joked that she passed my eight-and-a-half year screening process.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage and like many of the topics I have addressed on the site, the modern “take” on marriage seems off to me. It is primarily focused on the idea of cementing romantic love, which is certainly a fun part of it but is hardly the full picture. So I did a little a research into a few different ancient perspectives on marriage and wanted to share a few aspects of marriage that I believe are de-emphasized or ignored in modern culture.

Mutual Obligation

In Judaism, it is customary for the bridge and groom to sign a “ketubah,” or wedding contract. The document would detail the husband’s obligation to his wife, including the payment of a sort of “alimony” should the couple get divorced. It is a document designed to protect the woman’s rights and financial assets. Quite progressive for the times!

“…and I will work for thee, honor, provide for, and support thee, in accordance with the practice of Jewish husbands, who work for their wives, honor, provide for and support them in truth.”

Support clause of traditional Ketubahs

Though the ketubah is primarily focused on the obligations of a husband to his wife, the wife of course was supposed to perform her wifely duties as well. It just wasn’t the focus of the contract.

But the main point I want to emphasize here is that commitment and obligation is a big theme of marriage that is easy to ignore when TV shows and magazines focus on having a perfect wedding and buying the perfect wedding dress. While wedding planning is certainly difficult, building a life in which you can no longer be the center of your world is far more challenging. Needless to say, this is not the focus of the show, “Say Yes to the Dress.”


Marriage has traditionally been a pre-requisite for having children in almost all traditions. In the Catholic Church, it is one of the primary purposes of marriage.

Married love differs from any other love in the world. By its nature, the love of husband and wife is so complete, so ordered to a lifetime of communion with God and each other, that it is open to creating a new human being they will love and care for together. Part of God’s gift to husband and wife is this ability in and through their love to cooperate with God’s creative power. Therefore, the mutual gift of fertility is an integral part of the bonding power of marital intercourse. That power to create a new life with God is at the heart of what spouses share with each other.

-US Bishops Pastoral Letter on Marriage

A good friend of mine (and devout Catholic) had his first baby last year. He said as soon as he was born, an overwhelming love took over his brain and he felt that he would do anything for his new son, including sacrificing any personal goals or desires if necessary.

While many of you may disagree with the Catholic church’s view on marriage (contraception, same-sex marriage, etc.), that doesn’t negate the church’s emphasis on being open to a new type of life and love. That is the love between the husband and wife, and also the love of you children. Like my friend experienced, having a child can automatically make you less selfish (as in less self-oriented). It’s a big deal, and not talked about enough. And while you may not personally want to have children, being open to the possibility of having a different kind of life than you had as a single person should be something to strive for.

My life never worked out exactly like I planned, but I’m trying to do better about being open-minded about the things that don’t according to plan, and I have a good feeling that marriage will help with that.


In a Hindu marriage, the couple is joined together “so that they can pursue dharma (duty), artha (possessions), kama (physical desires), and moksha (ultimate spiritual release) together.” Moksha is the Hindu concept of enlightenment, and while there are multiple paths (yogas) to achieving enlightenment in Hinduism, a central requirement to achieving it is understanding that the self, the ego-self, what we think of when we think “I did this,” is not “real.” Or perhaps a better way of thinking about it is that you exist, but you don’t exist separately from the world. It is not you versus the world. You exist because of the world, and the world exists because of you. You are distinct, but not separate.

When there is separateness, one sees another, smells another, tastes another, speaks to another, hears another, touches another, thinks of another, knows another.

But when there is unity, one without a second, that is the world of Brahman. This is the supreme goal of life, the supreme treasure, the supreme joy. Those who do not seek this supreme goal live on but a fraction of this joy.”

-The Brihadarankyaka Upanishad

Thought getting married is not a requirement for achieving Moksha, I imagine that what was, prior to marriage, two separate egos, now become completely intertwined. Each party is dependent on the other, and while neither person “disappears” so to speak, they are not quite the same as they were. Experiencing and understanding this process is fundamentally the same as understanding that even outside of marriage, you  are distinct, but not separate from the world.

I hope to learn more about what the ancients said about marriage and share those ideas with you. There seems to be many unhelpful and misleading ideas about marriage that are currently in vogue that ancient wisdom can help rectify.